A sentimental journey

Last week, as I said in my last-but-one post, I went with my family to Wales, specifically Tywyn (pronounced Towin’), the same small town I went to with them for a few days last year. Mid-week I spent in Aberystwyth, my old university town. This was, for me, undoubtedly the highlight of the week even though it effectively meant two days less walking in the hills with my parents (and my aunt and cousin and her daughter, who joined my parents the day I went to Aberystwyth). You might be pleased to know that I did actually do some of the things I mentioned in my post about the holiday last year; but let’s start from the beginning. (Update: you can view the full set of pictures here.)

On the way out, after a disappointing stop at the services outside Telford on the M54 motorway, we went down to Ironbridge, a village on a gorge around the river Severn with an early cast iron bridge (a couple of photos, taken on the return visit with my aunt, here). I must say I was a bit disappointed with the bridge, because I thought it would be bigger and grander, and that you could drive across it. While I know it was revolutionary at the time, these days it looks like a museum piece. But Ironbridge itself is pleasant enough.

The first day, we headed down to Aberdyfi (or Aberdovey), a picturesque village next to the Dyfi estuary, and went for one of our customary walks in the hills (a couple of photos here). The walk was pretty tiring, but the views (as you’d expect in that part of Wales) are stunning. At Aberdyfi, you can see across the water to Ynyslas, which is a few minutes’ drive from Aberystwyth and somewhere I used to drive a lot in order to take pictures. Around Ynyslas there is a huge expanse of flatland, the interior of which is a peat bog which is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. There’s also a small town called Borth, which is a holiday town and is dead for much of the year, and looks it. I get a huge sense of longing and nostalgia looking across that river; my old “stamping grounds” are less than a swimming pool length away (though I would not recommend it), but a journey there requires a twenty-mile detour by rail and thirty miles or so by road.

On the second day (Monday) we went to Portmeirion, an Italianate holiday village built by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, or rather “Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, Kt. CBE. MC. LLD. FRIBA. FRTPI. FILA etc. (1883-1978)”, “to show that the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement and that architectural good manners could be good business”; photos here. (The Portmeirion pottery business, which is based in Stoke on Trent, was founded by his daughter.) It was also used as the set for The Prisoner (of “I am not a number, I am a free man!” fame). We spent a couple of hours in the village, most of whose buildings, mostly painted in different bright colours, are used as holiday accommodation. The village and its setting are pretty and sometimes dramatic, but it is a little bit kitschy and my mum said it reminded her of a Las Vegas reproduction. Perhaps the government might use it for one of their new casinos.

On the third day we went down to Aberystwyth (photos here), burning the hour or so before I could pick up my room key in the Orangery restaurant and walking in the town and round the park set in the ruined Norman castle. Aberystwyth has a marvellous setting, with two hills on the north and south sides of the town centre (Constitution/Penglais, and Pendinas respectively), the former having a cliff railway leading up to a camera obscura which was part of a Victorian “20th century theme park”. My parents wanted to go up it, but I had pressing personal needs and shopping to do, so I had to simply get my key and head for my room. My room was in the relatively new Brynderw (prounounced Bryn-derroo) hall of residence, the only student accommodation which was available to private residents as other halls are used for conference accommodation. The hall was converted from its previous use in 1998, and was described in the time just before its redevelopment as the ugliest building in the county, which it would remain no matter how much it was tarted up. My room was relatively comfortable; the kitchen smelled a bit. The shower, as I discovered the next morning, was so badly scaled up that the water went every which way except down. I complained to the accommodation department and asked them to get it fixed that day, which they did.

I spent the rest of my day shopping, and visited the health food shop in Terrace Road (which was there when I was at college) and asked if there was a vegetarian restaurant in town. I was directed to the Treehouse, which turned out to be organic but not vegetarian. (By the way, the staff of Spice of Bengal in Portland Road told me their meat was halal; their alcohol policy is “bring your own”.) I was, however, delighted to find that Aberystwyth had such things; it was a bit like being back in London, where I spend a lot of time (and money) in organic shops - although those in Aberystwyth are independently-run and not part of chains. Having forgotten my radio in Tywyn, I set out to buy one of those to entertain me in the flat in the evening. I thought I’d be able to find one easily at the Curry’s shop which was in the out-of-town shopping area. However, they didn’t have a simple AM/FM clock radio; they had a few cheap radios and a lot of expensive DAB ones, which I couldn’t justify paying for. I was rather annoyed, to say the least. I’m not afraid of the dark, but I am unnerved by going to bed alone and in silence, which I don’t do at home unless there is nothing on the radio.

The next day I set out on a sort of circular tour of Aberystwyth and its surrounds. I wanted to go up Pendinas and down the other side - and managed it this year. (Last year, I went up with my parents and could not go over the top as the wind was too great). On reaching the top, I sat for a while, had some water and ate a couple of Eccles Cakes (a sort of flaky pastry with currants inside), took a few pictures and admired the view. I had forgotten that Pendinas does not give views of Aberystwyth as there is another (smaller) hill in the way; all you can see is the mouth of the two rivers, the Ystwyth and the Rheidol - the latter being the one which actually flows through the town; but the views of every other part of town are very good, and the weather was fine, as it was for our entire holiday in fact. The way down from Pendinas towards the east is actually more spectacular than the way up from Aberystwyth and the view from the hill itself; that side is more rugged, the vegetation dominated by gorse. You can see the Ystwyth flood plain and the countryside to the south-east, and the hill on which the original Aberystwyth castle stood. The path down leads to Penparcau (pronounced Pen-park-eye), one of three “suburbs” Aberystwyth has on its eastern side (the other two being Llanbadarn and Waunfawr further north).

From Penparcau I walked down the steep hill into the Rheidol valley where the out-of-town shops are (including Morrisons supermarket, Curry’s, the DIY store Focus, and a McDonald’s), and on to Llanbadarn. Instead of going up the path to the bottom of the campus, as my parents and I did last year, I walked up the hill to Waunfawr, which I heard being called “Cardiac Hill” during my time there, on account of its steep gradient (1 in 4, although such hills feel like they are plain diagonal). I discovered that the newsagent I had bought my papers from during my time there had gone, its post office function having transferred to the Co-op across the road. I walked briefly through the hilltop halls of residence, in which I spent my first and third years, before descending to the level where the library, the arts centre and the student union are.

On arrival at the SU, I was met at the front desk by a woman who used to work in the back-office when I was involved in the union ten years ago, and recognised me. We talked about people who had come and (in most cases) gone, and I asked her for a copy of the Courier, the student magazine. She said it wasn’t what it was when I was there, having halved its size and these days didn’t offend anyone (during my time, it was fiercely independent and exposed a scandal or two). I must say, I preferred the A4-size 1990s Couriers myself. I walked round the back offices and met the union’s welfare lady, who arrived during the time I was there (and recognised me). We talked about developments in the union, such as the recent reduction from six “sabbaticals” (paid elected officers who take a year out of their study, hence the name) to five, in which the Welsh union still kept one, as they had when the union had eight when I first arrived. (I wrote this article two years ago, which discusses the Welsh union situation, in response to accusations of anti-semitism at Aber from the “usual suspects”.) Not only has the Courier downsized, but the regional newspaper, the Cambrian News, has as well. It was reduced from broadsheet to tabloid, like so many other papers. I personally dislike this trend enormously. A newspaper loses gravitas when it becomes a tabloid; it’s a format which lends itself to sensational splash headlines.

I paid a brief visit to the two departments in which I studied - international politics and history - but found nobody I knew, at least, nobody who was actually in. (I wanted to meet the lecturer who was linked to the “anti-semitism” affair, but he was not in.) I headed out into the wooded part of Penglais (pronounced Penglyce) hill, and got a bit lost and walked through someone’s garden, along what looked like a grassed-over path and ended up having to scramble up a wooded hill to get to where the actual path I used to use was. The path itself leads from the northern edge of Aberystwyth up to the student village on Penglais (opposite the university campus), with a branch off to the campus, and it was a more pleasant walk by far than the main road was. There is a viewpoint on Penglais which gives far better views of Aber itself than you can get on Pendinas; people know Pendinas better, I believe, because it is more distinctive.

The day after, I did a bit of shopping in Aberystwyth (stocking up on healthy canned drinks at the health food shop and getting my hands on the latest Linux Format), and got the bus back to Tywyn at 2:45pm. The bus was a small single-deck bus, not one of the double-deckers I rode on from Aber to Dolgellau during my time (then again, those buses - Leyland Bristols - were retired during my time there, and replaced with hand-me-down Leyland Olympians from London Country, which I suspect were the same buses I’d used to ride to sixth-form college two years before, repainted in Crosville colours - which were themselves painted over with Arriva corporate turcquoise a while later). The small size of the bus made for a crowded journey, with the dog two men brought on not making the journey very pleasant, but then, it never actually bothered me other than by being there. The bus started off by twisting and turning through the villages rather than just going down the main road. The bus took an hour and a half to actually reach Tywyn.

The next (and last) full day of our trip was spent at the Centre for Alternative Technology, a place I’d intended to visit during my time at Aber but never got round to it. The CAT is set in the hills just north of Machynlleth, and consists of various demonstrations of sustainable ways of building and running houses and industry. The main entrance involves going up a water-powered cliff railway, something I thought on first sight might have been a good idea on the Aber university campus, until I rode on it - the views down or up the railway are pretty scary. Among the centre’s main attractions was its vegetarian restaurant, which served up a rather nice homity pie (mashed potato, leeks, cheese and some other vegetables, I think, in pastry) with a red cabbage and seed salad on the side. It also had various displays on the environmental impact of modern life and on various alternatives. I took a lot of photos, but most of them include members of my family, so I’ve only published a handful. It’s a great educational centre, although its value is compromised by its remoteness. It’s a long way from any population centre. Perhaps something like it should be built in the Peak District or the Chilterns or North Downs.

Anyway, that was it, apart from a return visit to Ironbridge so that my aunt and cousin and her daughter could see the place. The return journey was uneventful, and I spent much time taking in the scenery, particularly as the road in went right along the Cadair Idris mountain range; the views are amazing (you can still get a double-decker bus from Machynlleth to Dolgellau, which runs along that road; I recommend it). A trip to this part of Wales is always a sentimental journey for me, and I spent much time in Aber revisiting places I’d spent time when studying there (and everywhere was open, since I went on a weekday, not on a Sunday like last year). If I was to go out there on holiday on my own steam, I’d go to Aber rather than Tywyn, not only because of the memories it holds but also because it’s a much better-equipped place. It’s sort of home from home, with a small-town setting but with urban “civilisation” provided by the university. I don’t remember feeling lonely or isolated while I was there. As a holidaymaker you would not have to do any shopping before you left except for things you know you can’t get in Morrison’s or Somerfield.

I had always wanted to go back since leaving Aber; I did not stay - as many others do - because I was about to convert to Islam, and the area with its tiny, mostly student, Muslim community could not satisfy my interest in Islam (although there is more of a presence in the Lampeter area now). Others leave because, as one of my final-year flatmates said, only three types of work exist there, namely bar work, farm work and college work (a bit of an exaggeration, mind you; there is retail and some light industry). I will probably go back if I have the time and resources, but next time my parents propose to go to the Lake District or Cornwall, I won’t be saying “why can’t we go to Wales?”. My longing has been satisfied somewhat by this journey.

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